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'Democracy is the Best Solvent': An Interview with the Algerian Novelist Boualem Sansal

10:46 AM, Feb 18, 2011 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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The Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal is the author of The German Mujahid. The book addresses a unique theme for an Arab author: the Holocaust. Via the reflections of two young brothers in a Parisian banlieue, it tells the story of Hans Schiller: a German SS officer who immigrates to Algeria, converts to Islam, and becomes a hero of the Algerian war of independence. Boualem Sansal has said that there is only a “thin line” separating Nazism from Islamism. He has also described contemporary Algeria under the rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as an “open-air prison.”

Sansal photo C. Hélie Gallimard COUL 1 09.05[2].jpg

Photo Credit: C. Hélie/Gallimard

Asked why he, nonetheless, stays, Sansal once replied, “Algeria is a big and beautiful country that has come a long way: It has a long and highly interesting history, having rubbed shoulders with all the peoples of the Mediterranean….One sunny day, Algeria will rediscover its way and its land will turn green again. I would like to be there to see it happen.” I talked with Boualem Sansal about the Egyptian revolution, the threat of political Islam, and the prospects for democratic change in his native Algeria.

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John Rosenthal: You have been a harsh critic of the lack of democracy in your own country, as well as in the Arab world more generally. You have also warned about the threat of a triumphant Islamism, which you compare to Nazism. The protest movement that brought about the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has been widely celebrated as a democratic movement. But there was an obvious presence of the Muslim Brotherhood among the protestors, and there were also signs of extreme hostility toward Israel and even of unmistakable anti-Semitism. What is your reaction to the events in Egypt? Hope? Fear?

Boualem Sansal: I am very happy to see the Arab peoples finally revolting against the dictatorships that have oppressed them for so long. My hope, my dream, is that democracies – even if imperfect democracies – will emerge from these revolts and that they will allow the Arab countries to prosper, both economically and culturally, and to open up to the world and live in peace with their neighbors. But it is not only a matter of hoping. One has to mobilize to make it happen, one has to act, one has to seek international assistance, one has to build bridges. For, in my opinion, the most important thing in the current phase is not to leave the Arabs alone by themselves. The very forces and ideas that have gotten them into to their present situation – tribalism, nepotism, Islamism, clannish attitudes – are going to fill the vacuum left by the dictatorships. Moreover, the birth of democracy is difficult. In the short run, it will not be able to meet people’s immediate expectations: for work, an efficient judiciary, an impartial administration and fair elections. As consequence, people are going to turn towards darker forces, of which the principal and best organized are the Islamists. They have been waiting for this moment for a long time, and they are eager to take their revenge. And obviously they are going to play on the same emotive registers that have been so often exploited by all the Arab and Muslim regimes: anti-Semitism, Israel, the “Zionist conspiracy,” but also “Western exploitation,” and so on.

There is another issue: in Egypt, the army has taken over the leading role. Now it is going to be the target of all sorts of attacks and also of all sorts of demands: necessarily contradictory demands in a society that is so polarized. Is it going to know how to manage the situation? One has to encourage the army quickly to put in place a civilian transitional government and to withdraw into the background as the guarantor of the free democratic process: a bit like in Turkey, in which the army traditionally served as the guarantor of democracy and secularism.

As far as Tunisia is concerned, I am confident. Tunisia is ready for democracy and will know how to reach an intelligent equilibrium. It is in the nature of Tunisians to seek compromise, and they will be able to show their native ability in this regard and build a true democracy step by step. On the other hand, I am very worried about Egypt. Egypt is a fragile giant. It is sick and poor, and at any given moment, it could suffer a crisis or a relapse.

Rosenthal: And what about Algeria? There was a demonstration in the capital Algiers last Saturday (February 12). But reports in the western media referred to only “hundreds” of demonstrators. There were reportedly many more police than demonstrators. What is happening in Algeria and what are the perspectives for change?

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